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My New Career as a People Person

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It was six years ago, when I was 46 years old, and I was lying in bed and feeling terrible on an island in the Hebrides. I’d come away on holiday to a place I’d always yearned to go to and things weren’t going well. I was there with the man I was going out with (and subsequently married but that’s another story) and we were uncomfortable with each other. We hadn’t known each other long enough to be holed up in a too-small, too-isolated ‘love nest’, far away from other people.

It had been my idea, my dream. I’d always wanted to head off to the Isle of Harris with a rugged bloke and be entwined for days on end. It hadn’t occurred to me that maybe my idea of intimacy was someone else’s idea of hell. And, anyway, he wasn’t in love with me then. He was too wrapped up in a past relationship to really be available to love anyone – not me and certainly not himself either. But I have never been one to let reality ruin my fantasy. Until then.

As I lay there wondering why this man I thought I was in love with plainly wasn’t in love with me, I started thinking about all the times I’d messed up my life. There were so many. I’d been a terrible girlfriend, a messed-up mother, a loose cannon, a wayward lover, a drunk. I had, in the past, sunk way too much and too far and done things I felt deeply ashamed of. I’d hurt and humiliated people I cared for. It didn’t feel good But, more than that, I realised I’d lost all sense of self.

In a vain desire to have some sort of ‘standing’ in the world, I’d sold my soul to journalism. I didn’t even know what integrity was any more. I’d argue on both sides if the money was right. I felt that I’d worked so hard for so long to be successful that I couldn’t possibly turn my back on the industry I’d strived so hard to belong to. I’d become obsessed with money. It had taken me over in a way that was out of kilter.

It wasn’t that I was poor. I’d inherited money from my father but my ex and I (the father of three of my four children) had frittered a worrying amount of it away on such fripperies as outdoor furnishings and club class tickets to exotic locations. So I didn’t seem able to turn paid work down. I was obsessed with the fact we’d run out of money so I found myself saying yes to every job I was offered. I had no filter. I’d write anything for anyone. I wrote about my intimate relationship with my then-partner. I wrote about my family, my dead-dad, my friends, people I knew, people I barely knew. Nothing was off-limits. I wrote article after article and the subjects begun to get increasingly personal Things came to a head when I was asked to write about my children.

At first, I saw nothing wrong with a quickly penned piece on how tricky it was bringing up my much-loved, much-wanted daughter. I didn’t think I’d written anything terrible. I’d just pointed out how much nosier and demanding she was compared to her three older brothers. My first inkling that anything was amiss was when various radio stations and daytime television stations called asking me to go on air and talk about my ‘controversial’ piece. Then the internet went mad and I became the scourge of parents, outraged at my comments. It was a bruising experience and it left me bewildered. Had I really said something that bad?

From then on, everything got worse. I couldn’t write anything without hoards of online trolls making my life miserable. In the end, I came off all social media but I could see that life, or at least my life as a journalist, had to change.

So there I was, in the Hebrides, moaning on about how sick I was of all of it when my boyfriend said, rather nonchalantly, ‘Well, why don’t you do something else then?’. Something else? Jesus. The thought had never occurred to me.

‘Like what?’.

‘I dunno. You like finding out what makes people tick. You’re interested in people. I think you’d be a good therapist.’

I sat there feeling somewhat stunned. Then I started googling courses on becoming a psychotherapist and, it seemed, I could do a six-week introductory course and see how it felt. That was six years ago. The six weeks went to a year, then another two years then…somehow four years passed and there I was, a fully paid-up, qualified counsellor. I couldn’t believe I’d done it.

In many ways, I’d turned my life around beyond recognition. Instead of going out I’d studied. I’d stopped partying, misbehaving, being an arsehole. I spent days and nights on end reading and learning and scrutinising myself and crying. Lot and lots of crying. I went in to therapy. I started therapising other people. I felt like an imposter – to myself, to them, to everyone. The first client I had was when I was working at a Youth Counselling Centre. She was 18, had dyed blue hair, many piercings and studs and was covered in tattoos. She was in the waiting room glowering at me as soon as she saw me. Her rather nervous mother kept prodding her as I asked Helen (not her real name) to come with me. “No,” she said scowling. In that moment, I almost turned and ran. What on earth was I doing there?

My course hadn’t prepared me for this. But I stood my ground, told her she was coming with me and somewhat frog marched her up the stairs. As we sat silently staring at each other, I noticed she had a picture of a rat on her mobile phone. ‘Is that your pet?’, I asked her. Suddenly this angry hurt teenager started smiling. It was the beginning of a very fruitful relationship. I have learned so many things; teenagers are difficult to counsel but, once they trust you, they really are magnificent in their ability to grasp therapy and run with it.

Adults take more time. We’re far more set in our ways and we’re scared. Therapy is work. It takes a form of bravery to walk through the door. It has to involve trust and interest and something between the therapist and client that has some ‘juice’. People ask me if I get bored. How could I? I’ve heard so many different stories from so many different lives.

I now know how to shoplift and how to remove security tags. I know where to buy any sort of drugs from. I’ve seen the scars from those who self-harm and I always consider that an honour. I’ve been to the backstreets of Faro via Google Earth where one of my youngest and saddest clients grew up. She was a little homesick girl who just wanted to show me the life she had before her mother died and her father came to the UK for work.

I’ve met some truly fascinating people. I’ve met people who believe they have done terrible things. Sometimes I’m not sure if I am friend or foe. Therapy goes like that. I look like I’m listening. I am listening. But I’m also thinking – what’s going on here? Who am I for this person? I notice the minute – a change of dress, the body language, the defenses, the endless defenses we all use to avoid the things we don’t like about ourselves.

I’ve seen jealous women clad in green and scarlet women wearing scarlet yet neither of them realising it. I’ve had a man who couldn’t grieve develop huge styes in his eyes without connecting it to his inability to cry. I have seen people in desperate pain. But I’ve also seen people heal. I’ve been wept on, shouted at, flirted with, denigrated, exalted, insulted, complemented. And I just sit there. I sit there because that’s my job. And I love it. It feels serious and proper and kind and caring. I delve into places I’d been terrified of going to before I chose this work. I learn as much, if not more, from my clients as they do from me. I still do. Every time I meet a client I feel a sense of wonderment. ‘What journey will we go on here?’, I think.

It will never stop, this learning. That’s what I love about it. There’s so much to know. When I tell people – people I used to know – that I’m now a therapist, they look momentarily confused. Most struggle to believe that I would give up a seemingly successful public career for something that sounds so different. But I point out that they are not that far removed.

Therapists are interested in people, in why people do the things they do. We’re interested in theory and practice and relationships and the past and the here and now. What might appear to some to be quite simple – I sit in this chair, you sit in that chair, is far more complicated than that. As my clients tell me their stories, I am working hard concentrating, filtering, alighting like a butterfly on one piece of information, gathering a bit of pollen from it, then flitting off to the next bit.

It’s a quieter life held in some sort of suspended animation as myself and my clients sit together. No one but us knows what goes on in that room and, sometimes, we’re probably not all that sure what actually has gone on. There is something mysterious about the therapeutic relationship that leaves people baffled and intrigued.

People always ask if I enjoy what I do. I always answer that enjoy isn’t the word. I am sort of completed by it – by doing good, by being intellectually stimulated, by meeting so many different people letting me in to their complicated but fascinating lives. I’ve met a more full range of people than I ever did as a journalist and now I am not forced by put-upon editors to find a headline.

I am strangely changed and yet unchanged – as Winnicott said, the worse breakdown we fear is the breakdown that has already happened. I feared losing my status, my income, my social standing but really that fear was about getting to know myself and that’s been around for a long time. I draw back the veil every day by an infinitesimal amount.

And, of course, dear reader, I did marry the man from the Hebrides. But it would never have happened if I hadn’t chosen a different path for my life. Becoming a therapist has helped me see relationships in such a different light. I am far more tolerant, kinder, more giving and more forgiving than I ever thought I would be. There is some sort of innate blind trust that enters the room when a client walks in.

It’s a form of love. You take a leap. You trust the leap. It can all go a bit wobbly but if you do the work, feel the trust, love and support, you get there in the end. I could have walked away from this, from him, from my training. I could have jacked it all in and there were many times I nearly did.

But I am so glad I didn’t.

Stroking Naked Men

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I started stroking naked men for money in 2007. It feels light years ago. Not so much in linear distance, but more in the sense of understanding from this nine years later perspective, what it was I was doing. Back then it was simply a call to heart that sang out clear and true, even as it challenged the heck out of my mind.

I’d come out of a period of extreme grief. As that first ravaged year turned, I needed a project. I was interested in men, having spent most of my adult life identifying as lesbian. I didn’t want a relationship in the orthodox sense of it, but oh, how I wanted relationship. Stroking Naked Men was born from this place. There I stood. A middle aged, professional woman, with a strangely compelling idea.

I fretted for a bit. I worried about what other people would think and whether the ‘psychotherapy police’ would get me. I tried to talk myself out of it for good and logical reasons. Dear Reader, I had to do it. In the end it was simple. It was one of those things that must be done, even if they don’t wholly make sense.

I bought a second phone and distilled an invitation into a twenty-word classified ad. I told myself I would stop the moment anything felt off key. I hung out my shingle and started work.

This is what I knew. I wanted to create and offer intimacy within a structure. To use what I’d learned over two decades as a therapist about how to hold space and attention. I wanted to touch rather than handle people, and lovingly offer pleasure rather than mechanistically get them off.

Men started rolling in. I learned how to use the telephone as a portal and to pick up the attitude underneath the words. I said ‘no’ a lot. I was weeding out anger and contempt, and the colour palate of misogyny. I could hear it crouched and hiding in the most charming and articulate, as palpably as its more obvious counterpart. The men who ask ‘how much to come on your face’ as soon as I pick up the phone.

This is how it goes with my naked men: a phone call leading to an appointment. Leading to a man on my doorstep at a designated time. Leading to him being invited in, being welcomed and settled. I take a little time to say ‘hello’ to let him take me in and to breathe him in too. I check if there’s anything he’d like to ask or say before I get him unwrapped and up on the table. Over and over again, over these years, I’ve stood in this beginning moment with many men. It always pulses with vulnerability. Always. And I’ve come to appreciate the beauty of that vulnerability. It takes courage for men to walk into erotic tenderness, and it’s a different kind of courage than that required for combat.

In my book, there’s getting undressed and then there’s being naked. They are quite different things. I like the naked place. My erotic work is situated in that mysterious landscape. It’s simple. I show up. I welcome you. I am in service to your session.

I have pleasured and loved a lot of men since I began this chapter of my life. More men than most women have through their hands in a lifetime. I now know my brothers in a way I can’t imagine getting to in any other manner. Gratitude is a drumbeat in my blood. My thank you is a prayer.

I am generous by nature and it’s easy to be this, within the structure and form I created. I love this work. I am in my best self when I do it. I have witnessed and held so much embodied, naked soul, in these sessions. I have been touched over and over, not by complicated stuff, but by the simplest of human stuff. Seeing so many men, in the beauty and vulnerability of orgasm has blown a place in my heart right open. Maybe, it’s because I am there in this very particular, devotional way and it’s a ritual, and because he is so exposed rather than buried deeply inside the woman, that it has such Grace. I take the holding and the showing up, very seriously. I’m there in service. It is for him. It is all for him. And, I don’t mean by that, that I’m cut off or absent. It’s the opposite. I am so utterly, absolutely there. I am with him. With me too, or it wouldn’t work.

I suspect that my naked men like, value and even love me, because I can give such an ‘it’s all for you’ experience, without disappearing and making it mechanistic and empty. I’m right there, so it’s intimate and real. And yet, I don’t need to be attended to or gratified. In fact, I’ve come to understand that this is my very favorite sexual position. I reckon it’s my unique selling point. Authentic devotion. That’s all.

I seem to be tailing off my naked business these days. I am more word of mouth than out there in the shop window of sexual services. I’m writing more and baking more. And when I am called to the massage table, I step up there smiling.

I am full of my naked men. I have been told many secrets, shown wounds, battle scars, triumphs and a world full of libidinal joy. I have learned a lot of things about men and about myself. My men have been generous, and even if they didn’t know they were helping me, they have.

I am now quite sure it’s nakedness that turns me on, rather than just the stripping off of clothes. So, vulnerability is sexy. Radical or what? Recently, a rather anxious man got preoccupied with what was it I was doing to him? I wasn’t ‘doing’ to him as much as I was meeting him. I believe that every one of us, each in our own way, longs for that. I knew that when I started this project, but I didn’t know it in the beat of my heart, in the breath of me, the way I know it now.

I have been asked more than a few times, in the heat of a moment: ‘do you like cock?’

‘I like cock’, I say back.’If it’s attached to a man I can like.’

I have to like my naked men, in order to accompany them, to uncover and discover them, to hold not only their cock, but also their heart, in my hands. In a nutshell, I can tell you, I have liked a lot of men. I consider this a blessing.

You can find Caroline at her website: Carolina Cooks for You

And her musings about depression:

Therapy as Soul’s Work – a Traveller’s Tale

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Therapists, in my view, are born not made, preferably within the toxic shambles of ancestral cock-ups, gloom and tragedy, glued together by betrayals and abandonments under a carapace of despair.

For as the poet WH Auden put it: ’The so-called traumatic experience is not an accident, but the opportunity for which the child has been patiently waiting – had it not occurred, it would have found another, equally trivial – in order to find a necessity and direction for its existence, in order that its life may become a serious matter.’

In our healing journey, many of us seek recognition of our false self in the world, but that is akin to living on the scaffolding and ignoring the house. Real recognition and thus satisfaction comes, in both my own experience and as a therapist, when the soul is seen and met.

It is as if we therapists are destined to fly out far from the earth (I will describe specifically how that happened to me) and then have both the capacity and the duty to heal what lies within the bounds of that circumference.

Never trust a therapist whose arc is shorter than your own. And if that is not a golden rule it ought to be.

For what is most needed to help people understand themselves is a companion living an archetypal life. For as Thomas Mann said, ‘Whereas in the life of mankind the mythical represents an early and primitive stage, in the life of an individual it represents a late and mature one.’

But all of the above is by way of pre-amble, for I was asked about my own journey as a man, and my delay serves to both set the stage and allow me to ponder the complexity of my story.

The first inkling I had of destiny came on my third birthday, when in hospital fighting to survive pneumonia, I was molested by an older boy and shot out of my body as if fired from a cannon.

Suddenly, I was in a far-flung corner of a blackened universe, attached to nothing, floating in the void. It is said that a mystic swims in what a psychotic drowns in. I returned awake yet wet, full to the brim of wondrous gifts and terrible fears.

It was my first shamanic experience. But it belongs in context.

My father was an Irish catholic, born in secret in a Dublin workhouse, my mother a Protestant missionary’s daughter from India. They shared a birthday, September 8, with one another and with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

And there was no question that I was treated like the divine child, although by this time, as in all mythological tales, the kingdom once abundant was now in ruins. My father, in a proxy attempt to find the mother who had given him up for adoption, had run off with another woman and was in exile.

One Irish catholic against a family of serious English Protestants has poor odds and, after a number of visits, he was never seen again.

My fall from grace was up and running and would be prolonged. By the time my stepfather came along, my father was all but erased from history, and it was made clear that this was year Zero.

Now that I have grown-up children of my own, it is hard to conceive how two young boys would have to lie about their provenance at school, conceal the family secrets and save their family from further shame.

But this was the end of the sixties and things were different. Even in our ‘Christian’ family, judgment not mercy prevailed and there is no question that shame was to be feared rather than confronted.

What didn’t help me was that I was nice looking and rather too adored. One day, when I was about ten, my stepfather pulled me into the pantry and hit me hard, with his fist, in the stomach.

Like abusers before him, I was instructed never to tell anyone and I never did. It was around the time, my mother had an affair. As always, I was her confidante, and when she was discovered, I was blamed for not telling and, like my father before me, found myself the family scapegoat.

I write about these things now because enough time and work has gone by for me to be able to do so. There has been much said about sexual abuse in recent years, but there remains less understanding of emotional abuse in families.

What was most shocking of all was the realisation that although I had stood by her through her affair, my mother was going to close her heart, maintain the status quo and would put enormous pressure on me to achieve, so all that would now be unlived through her, would be channelled through me.

It was a pressure that all but destroyed me and although initially I won plaudits and prizes, it was not long before I gave up and surrendered myself to many years of self destruction.

There were many things that happened, but as in all mythological tales, this one held within it the seeds of redemption and although I had travelled the via negativa, experiencing the divine in its seeming absence, from the age of 22 I began to have awakenings that would return me to an experience of my essence, that which both existed outside of time and space and held them within it.

At 26 I gave up alcohol, which I had been consuming in quantity since the age of 14, and was scooped up by an elderly Buddhist, a former tea planter who knew the pain of alienation and could begin to guide me home; at 28, I became a father for the first time; at 33 I was living in a retreat centre and stumbled across the burgeoning UK men’s movement and with it a depth and breadth of understanding and fellowship that spoke to my soul.

In 1999, on a vision quest for men in Snowdonia, I was guided to perform a simple ritual in which I reclaimed my father’s surname, an act later confirmed in a court of law. In that moment, I heard a deep inner voice saying I would hear news of my father when I got home. I had already learned that in ritual space, whole universes are re-arranged.

When I returned, his death certificate was on the mat. My father had died in Leicester in November 1987; in August I had moved to Leicester to work on the local paper. Our souls had called to each other, moved close yet never met.

Through the men’s work, a long grief ritual with the African chief Malidoma Some, different trainings as a therapist, studying astrology, involvement in family constellations, rebirthing and meditation, I found my way. On a visit to the Babaji ashram in India – the same district from which my family fled when Gandhi was killed – I laid the ghost of my ancestors.

Six years ago, I was initiated into an ancient meditation pathway of light and sound and discovered with TS Eliot that at the end of all our explorings we shall return to our beginnings and know the place for the first time.

At 53, I am part of the Chiron in Pisces generation. Our wound is the wound of separation, and yet in returning to the root of the root of the Self, we find something miraculous: in our true heart, at the deepest level of our being, we are unscathed – lover, beloved and finally Love itself.

What emerged from my experience were gifts I would not be without, gifts to be shared and passed on to those who know such depth of pain as I have, those who need an awareness that we are visitors here yet can also find home.

At 40, I found out I had been adopted in order that my father could have no connection with me and he had been told we were headed for a new life in Australia.

In being a father to my own children, at least some of what was emptied has been filled. I have learned something of love and forgiveness and those who work with me know I come to them with heartfelt compassion and deep sensitivity.

What I see now is that we do indeed have to become like children again, for as Andrew Harvey writes, only the child will go into hell for the divine. I have known that hell.

The Sufis acknowledge that although we want union, He wants separation. We are meant to be here. I am, you are. We are all special.

How do we discover, or uncover, that which we already are? Rumi described ‘the one thing’, that one essential task, as the return to the root of the root of one’s own self.

In coming here, we descend into the world head first and it takes a long time to find our feet. For Earth is a mirror of Heaven, and in a mirror are we not looking at both ourselves and life backwards?

The soul is both ancient and new-born, again and again over many lifetimes, with life the ultimate paradox, pressing us to find that which is sovereign yet long forgotten, often within families, which mythologist Michael Meade wincingly describes as ‘a storehouse of poison or fixed positions’.

How many of us are born with a sense of nobility yet consigned to a life that is anything but noble, amid circumstances seemingly designed to thwart any sense of royal birth?

And although we suffer and often bemoan the lot spun by the Fates specifically for us, something of great import and necessity is going on.

I like to help others remember that.

© Simon Heathcote 2016

You can find out more info about Simon’s work here.

James Brown: How therapy saved my life

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The first time I went to a therapist, late on a dark Monday night in autumn 1997, was traumatic for more reasons than one.

I was gripped by an almost childlike fear that I might not actually get to see the guy. I was also gripping a drainpipe, 10 feet up the side of a healthcare centre in Southwark.

Read the full story here: James Brown: How therapy saved my life

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